The barge T56 was put under “preventative detention” to facilitate an ongoing investigation into a Feb. 17 incident aboard that led to a death, a shipping official said. (Photo: Rushton Skinner)

A New Jersey expert on enclosed spaces will help investigate a death and three injuries last month aboard a barge docked at Pockwood Pond, Police Commissioner Mark Collins said Friday.

The measure is part of a multi-agency response to an incident that occurred shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 17, when police said 55-year-old Pockwood Pond resident Noel Groves entered a tank on the barge.

Mr. Groves quickly lost consciousness, as did two other males who entered the tank to rescue him. The two would-be rescuers later regained consciousness, but they were transported to the Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital along with a fourth person after experiencing respiratory difficulties, according to police, who have not provided an update on the trio’s condition.


Investigations began the same morning, after the police Marine Unit received a report of the incident and notified the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry, according to VISR Engineer Surveyor Charles Agina.

“The assumption is that [because] it’s a vessel, the [shipping] registry is going to get involved with it,” Mr. Agina said. “The [VISR] director immediately got in touch with me. I then put into action what we normally do in this case.”

For an incident of such severity, protocol required Mr. Agina to order an immediate “preventative detention” of the vessel, which is registered in St. Kitts but owned by Tortola Barge Services Ltd., he said.

This process involves notifying the captain, who in turn notifies the country in which the vessel is flagged, he explained. After the detention is served, he added, the police conduct all further investigation.

“The flag administration, or the representative of the flag administration, is aware of the incident,” Mr. Agina said. “There are protocols to be followed when there’s intervention by any state on a vessel of another flag.”

Meanwhile, VI officials contacted the New Jersey expert, according to the police commissioner.

“We had a meeting with the [confined spaces] expert along with chief fire officer, chief medical officer, shipping registry and police to discuss the safety matters on the vessel and extraction of crucial evidence,” the commissioner said. “It’s been concluded at the moment by all persons that the expert should come to the BVI.”

The vessel, which is named T56, is what’s known as a “dumb barge,” meaning it has no means of self-propulsion, Mr. Agina said. He added that the late Mr. Groves was not a crewmember.

“The vessel in question was a barge: A barge has no crew,” Mr. Agina said. “A crew of a vessel means a group of workers on a ship who have entered into an agreement to work on that vessel. They have a seafarer’s employment agreement, which is covered by conventions of the International Maritime Organization. Which this individual was not. He was not a crew because that vessel is not crewed.”

Because Mr. Groves wasn’t working as a seafarer, he is not protected by the vessel owner’s obligation to maintain ship safety as outlined in IMO casualty codes, but an investigation nevertheless must be carried out per the organisation’s “casualty investigation code,” Mr. Agina explained.

“To that end, the RVIPF is conducting investigations,” he added. “VISR issued a preventative detention order, as required by the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 2001, to facilitate the investigations by the RVIPF. The [registry] cannot, at this stage, comment further on the on-going police investigations.”

Typically, Mr. Agina said, initial investigations into such incidents focus not on “apportioning blame or liability” but on assessing safety and understanding what to do better in the future.

Mr. Collins said the extent to which any party will be held responsible depends on the findings of the officer in charge of the case, Sergeant Jerome Padmore with the police Marine Unit.

“[Police] will be looking at the duty of care and the processes, procedures and policies that are in place for [the barge],” Mr. Collins said. “Clearly, there will be processes and policies in place, but how enforceable they are in terms of whether it’s just advice and guidance or whether it’s actually written down [is unclear].”

If the investigation finds evidence of criminality, police would refer the matter to the director of public prosecutions for advice, according to the commissioner.

With the investigation ongoing, Messrs. Collins and Padmore declined to disclose the identity of Mr. Groves’ employer, his reason for being on the barge in the first place, or the type of tank he entered before his death.

An official from Tortola Barge Services Limited declined to comment on the matter.

Past incidents

Mr. Groves’ death wasn’t the first to occur in the territory under similar circumstances in recent years.

On Feb. 16, 2016, 67-year-old Honduras native Mario Urquia died suddenly while working in the steering room aboard the Princess Sam Asia landing craft while it was anchored in St. Thomas Bay, Virgin Gorda, officials said at the time.

The vessel was owned by Global Ocean Transporting at the time, officials said.

No one was charged in relation to the incident, and police told the Beacon in September 2016 that they were no longer investigating and that the death was “a matter for the Coroner’s Office.”

Enclosed spaces

Shortly after the 2016 death, the VISR published a “notice to mariners” warning about the dangers of working in enclosed spaces.

“The atmosphere in an enclosed space may be hazardous due to oxygen depletion or enrichment,” the notice stated. “There could be toxic gases or liquids present. Particularly in fuel and cargo oil tanks, there could be a flammable atmosphere. Additionally, there would not be a free flow of air.”

Mr. Agina stressed the importance of such warnings.

“Statistically, it doesn’t happen [in the BVI] that often, but worldwide, as we speak now, somebody is being evacuated from an enclosed space because they’ve collapsed in there,” he said, adding, “One incident is one more than we want.”

Because enclosed spaces present invisible threats, he added, following safety protocols is crucial.

“Complacency in procedures sometimes ends up with situations like this: lack of knowledge,” Mr. Agina said, adding, “The people who are not aware of the dangers of the enclosed space might just see an empty space and assume that the air in that space is good to breathe. Therefore, entering it without due care can lead to an accident like this. It’s lessons to be learned.”

Labour Code

The Department of Labour and Workforce Development did not respond to requests for comment, but the 2010 Labour Code includes various rules designed to protect employees from dangerous work environments.

Employers, for instance, must take reasonable precautions to protect workers and ensure that “the workplace, machinery, equipment and processes” are “safe and without risk to [employee] safety and health as far as is reasonably possible.”

Employers must also “provide adequate ventilation in the workplace” and furnish “suitable protective equipment” in dangerous environments, the law states.


However, such rules often do not get consistently enforced in the territory, which lacks a dedicated regulatory body like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States, according to retired public officer Bennet Smith.

“In the United States, there’s the famous OSHA, which you hear about a lot,” said Mr. Smith, who posted about the issue on Facebook after the incident. “So that was my comment — a very simple comment that, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t really have [an agency comparable to OSHA].”